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Global alarm as Dutch lab creates highly contagious killer flu


December 20, 2011 - Rotterdam

Rotterdam (The Netherlands), Dec.20 : A deadly strain of Bird Flu with the potential to infect and kill millions of people has been created in a laboratory by Dutch scientists who now want to publish full details of how they did it.

For the first time, the researchers have been able to mutate the H5N1 strain of avian influenza so that it can be transmitted easily through the air in coughs and sneezes. Until now, it was thought that H5N1 Bird Flu could only be transmitted between humans via very close physical contact.

Dutch scientists carried out the controversial research to discover how easy it was to genetically mutate H5N1 into a highly infectious "airborne" strain of human flu. They believe that the knowledge gained will be vital for the development of new vaccines and drugs.

But critics say the scientists have endangered the world by creating a highly dangerous form of flu which could escape from the laboratory - as well as opening a Pandora's box for fanatical terrorists wishing to make a bio-weapon.

The discovery has prompted fears within the US government that the knowledge will fall into the hands of terrorists wanting to use it as a bio-weapon of mass destruction.

Some scientists are questioning whether the research should ever have been undertaken in a university laboratory, instead of at a military facility.

The US government is now taking advice on whether the information is too dangerous to be published.

"The fear is that if you create something this deadly and it goes into a global pandemic, the mortality and cost to the world could be massive," a senior scientific adviser to the US government told The Independent, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He added: "The worst-case scenario here is worse than anything you can imagine."

The H5N1 strain of avian influenza has killed hundreds of millions of birds since it first appeared in 1996, but has so far infected only about 600 people who came into direct contact with infected poultry.

The details of the study are so sensitive that they are being scrutinised by the US Government's own National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which is understood to have advised American officials that key parts of the scientific paper should be redacted to prevent terrorists from using the information to reverse-engineer their own lethal strain of flu virus.

In an unprecedented move, the Biosecurity board is believed to have told the US Government that there is a serious possibility of potentially dangerous information being misused if the full genetic sequence of the mutated H5N1 virus were to be published in open scientific literature.

The study was carried out by a Dutch team of scientists led by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, where the mutated virus is stored under lock and key, but without armed guards, in a basement building.

Dr Fouchier, who declined to answer questions until a decision is made on publication, said in a statement released on the university's website that it only took a small number of mutations to change the avian flu virus into a form that could spread more easily between humans.

ANI

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